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Spirituals are the musical expressions created by enslaved Africans to maintain their spiritual and cultural practices while Southern slaveowners were attempting to Christianize them. The songs demonstrate the human spirit in resistance to bondage with an overarching theme of freedom, both spiritual and physical. Enslaved Africans relied on their faith in the divine to help them endure the harsh and cruel conditions of slavery. Two vital elements of the cultural tradition of their ancestors express this faith and the resilience it inspired—the African oral tradition and African music. The sacred songs that came to be known as spirituals affirmed an African worldview and were a critical vehicle for group unity in which the enslaved Africans could all take part. The spirituals articulated directly and indirectly the enslaved Africans’ collective discontent with the injustices and inhumanities of the slave system and their hope and assurance of liberation.

Growth and Development of the Songs

By the late 18th century, the spiritual had begun, in a small way, to distinguish itself from other music performed by enslaved Africans primarily by the context in which it was performed. However, it was in the middle of the 19th century that the spiritual reached its full development. Although other forms of African American music were developing that were similar in style (e.g., the blues), the spiritual had its impetus and growth as a musical form in the clandestine gatherings of Africans in religious ceremonies and rituals. Plantation owners’ effort to Christianize enslaved Africans was a covert tactic to subjugate and control them, and enslaved Africans recognized the insincerity of the Christian proselytizers. Africans’ predilection to spirituality, however, allowed them to transform the newly introduced religious concepts and ideas into their cosmology, which led to the formulation of religious practices based on their African past. It was in these religious practices that the spiritual was born.
The spirituals are a classic example of the creative and dynamic communicative possibilities of music in African cultures that continued to be explored by Africans in the Americas. The songs were used for multiple purposes: to teach, to inspire, to signal, to comment, to inform, and to tell stories. They not only were used for religious expressions but also covered the history, thoughts, and aspirations of enslaved Africans and contextualized their lives and affairs under the oppression and religious hypocrisy of the slave system. Most important, the spirituals were practical tools that served as coded communications for emotional and physical escape as well as rebellion.
The texts of the spirituals are full of allusion and imagery with hidden and double meanings. Many of the texts include biblical words like Savior, suggesting God, ancestor spirits, or Harriet Tubman and Canaan referring to heaven, a better life in a Northern state, or freedom after emancipation. The phrase my home indicated Africa and steal away to Jesus implied escape to the North. A few of the most well-known spirituals are “Go Down Moses,” “O Mary Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Mourn,” “Walk Together Children,” “Wade in the Water,” “Roll Jordan Roll,” and “Deep River.”

Types of Spirituals

Musically, the spiritual represents the persistence of African identity in the United States, with musical continuances in African rhythms, call-and-response, melody, and improvisation. The older spirituals were of three basic types: ring shouts, sorrow songs, and jubilees. The ring shout was derived from West African rituals and ceremonies and involved singing the spiritual, shouting, dancing, and drumming produced by hand clapping, foot stomping, and tapping with sticks. The rhythm of this type of spiritual is strongly influenced by the rhythms of the dance and percussion. The sorrow song has a slow tempo, is intensely poignant, and speaks directly to the conditions of slavery. The jubilee has a faster tempo and expresses the hopeful expectation and joys of freedom.
Call-and-response patterns are typical in all the types of spirituals, whether in the form of solo and group responses, variable solo calls and repeated refrains, or solo and solo alternating responses. Many of the melodies of the spirituals are replicas of African melodies extracted from cultural memory, while other melodies are the spontaneous creations of talented individuals who used African concepts in the arrangement of melodic tones and drew upon musical scales common in Africa. Improvisation takes place on several levels in the performance of spirituals: Songs are created spontaneously with the text improvised as the song progresses and melodic lines improvised with repetitions that vary slightly.

Popular Recognition

The spirituals first became recognized nationally and internationally in the 1870s through the performances of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group of college musicians from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Their concert-arranged versions of the spirituals helped preserve the orally transmitted songs of their ancestors. H. T. Burleigh, the first African American composer to gain national recognition as a composer, arranger, and singer, transcribed and arranged spirituals for solo voice. Internationally renowned African American musicians such as Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes, and Paul Robeson performed Burleigh's solo arrangements on the concert stage. James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson, John Work III, and Nathaniel Dett have provided other major collections of the spirituals.
The spiritual is of paramount significance because of its role as an authentic African American cultural artifact and for its widespread musical influence. It has been at the crux of all African American sacred music and has influenced every form of American popular music. The intensity and power of the spiritual is evidenced in its universality and enduring message of triumph.



  • spirituals
  • ring shout
  • improvising
  • improvisation
  • music
  • African Americans
  • ancestors


Further Reading

  • Cone, James H. (1992). The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation. New York: Seebury Press. (Original work published 1972). This is Cone's penetrating theological interpretation and analysis of the spirituals.
  • Jones, Arthur C. (1993). Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. This book shows the wisdom and teachings of the spirituals.
  • Lovell, John L. (1972). Black Song: The Forge and the Flame. New York: Paragon House. This has been the authoritative work on black song for more than 25 years.
  • Walker, Wyatt Tee. (1982). Somebody's Calling My Name: Black Sacred Music and Social Change. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press. Walker is a giant in the music, oratorical, and civil rights fields, and he has given us a great book.